The Longstanding Debate over Vegetarianism in Tibet

In his review of Geoffrey Barstow’s “The Faults of Meat,” Rory Lindsay examines the little-known teachings around vegetarianism in Tibetan Buddhism.

Rory Lindsay
16 June 2020
Nothing Is What It Seems, 2007. By Michela Martello.

Eating other beings may not seem like the most intuitive choice for those following the Mahayana Buddhist path, but that is exactly what many Buddhists have done for centuries. In Tibetan culture, the consumption of meat has been the norm, yet given the basic Buddhist prohibition against killing, meat-eating has always posed significant ethical problems. How, then, have Tibetan meat eaters justified their actions? And how have vegetarians in Tibet argued their case? In The Faults of Meat, edited by Geoffrey Barstow, we find a rich amalgam of translated works by major Tibetan authors on the topic of meat-eating, from those who vigorously argue for vegetarianism to those who carefully defend meat’s ingestion.

A basic starting point for Tibetan scholars has been the canonical record of the Buddha’s teachings. Those arguing in support of vegetarianism frequently cite works such as the Lankavatara Sutra, in which the Buddha rejects the idea that eating meat is distinct from the act of killing. Barstow notes in his introduction that one of the most common Buddhist defenses of meat-eating hinges on the idea that the consumer is not at fault if the meat is purchased in the marketplace; this centers on an oft-cited monastic rule concerning meat’s “threefold purity” that holds that if the consumer didn’t personally kill the animal, didn’t ask someone else to kill it for them, and/or didn’t even suspect that the animal might have been killed for them, then they are absolved of any wrongdoing. As Barstow’s translated excerpt shows, the Lankavatara Sutra rejects this reasoning: “If someone gives up meat, then animals will not be killed. This is because innocent beings are usually killed for money; other reasons are rare.” The Buddha then explains that while he had previously permitted less advanced disciples to eat meat that was not killed for them, he now forbids everyone from eating meat due to its wide-ranging karmic consequences.

Historically, most Tibetans have included meat in their diet. Yet there are early examples of Tibetan masters who rejected this norm, avoiding meat even as their peers embraced it.

Despite such dictums attributed to the Buddha himself, historically, most Tibetans have included meat in their diet. Yet there are early examples of Tibetan masters who rejected this norm, avoiding meat even as their peers embraced it. One of the earliest advocates for vegetarianism was the Bön master Metön Sherab Özer (1058–1132), who was instrumental in the establishment of Bön monasticism. He described the immorality and personal risks of meat-eating, stating, “By definition, this thing called ‘meat’ comes from the killing of animals. Being without mercy sends one to hell. With great regret, abandon eating it. This thing called ‘meat’ comes from a father and a mother.” As Barstow notes, Metön’s comments foreground the central issue in Tibetan debates about meat-eating: compassion.

The belief that dietary compassion is integral to monastic life was championed by later scholars, including Ngorchen Kunga Sangpo (1382–1456), the influential master of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism and founder of Ngor Ewam Chöden Monastery. Ngorchen’s vegetarianism, and his insistence that the monks at his monastery adopt a strict vegetarian diet, made Ngor one of the rare places in Tibet where vegetarianism was the rule. In his chapter on Ngorchen’s vegetarianism, Jörg Heimbel explains that Ngorchen sought to restore the Sakya tradition to its original glory by tapping into what he believed to be the “pure and untainted teachings of the early great Sakya founders.” This included drawing inspiration from Jetsun Drakpa Gyaltsen (1147–1216), one of the five founders of Sakya, who carefully avoided meat and alcohol except on special occasions, such as tantric ritual performances.

It was precisely tantric ritual that became an issue for Tibetan advocates of vegetarianism. Indeed, how could tantric Buddhists avoid eating meat when its ingestion is so important to their rites? One pioneer in navigating this problem was Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292–1361), the founder of the Jonang school of Tibetan Buddhism. In his chapter on Dolpopa’s rejection of meat, Michael Sheehy outlines Dolpopa’s position that slaughtered meat is not permissible even in tantric contexts. The only meat to be consumed in a tantric ritual must come from animals who died naturally—this, Dolpopa argues, avoids problems associated with killing an animal, which he warns will lead to rebirth in the animal realm. Importantly, Dolpopa also insisted that only tantric practitioners who are highly realized should eat meat during rituals—anyone else, he said, should avoid such a morally transgressive substance.

Despite the arguments of Metön, Ngorchen, and Dolpopa, not all Tibetan scholars viewed vegetarianism as obligatory for monks, or even for bodhisattvas. The impassioned Geluk scholar Khedrup Je Gelek Palsang (1385–1438) argued that eating meat is not only morally permissible but even, in some cases, virtuous. Anna Wolcott Johnson explains in her finely written chapter that Khedrup engaged with two ostensibly contradictory textual traditions—the monastic rules outlined in the Vinaya literature and the aforementioned Lankavatara Sutra—to present a nuanced analysis that avoids a simple yes or no to the question of whether eating meat is morally problematic. He argued that nowhere in the Vinaya does the Buddha forbid monastics from eating meat, and he reasoned that the Buddha’s claims that certain types of animals should not be eaten implies that at least some meat is permissible. He turned to the aforementioned rule of meat’s threefold purity, which he believed absolves the consumer of any karmic blame by ensuring no implication in the animal’s killing. Drawing on the work of the sixth-century Indian Buddhist philosopher Bhaviveka, Khedrup rejected the idea that if there were no meat-eating there would be no killing, saying that such claims lead to absurdities. For example, he argued that if someone were morally culpable for eating meat that had been killed by someone else and not for their own enjoyment, then they would be equally blameworthy for wearing pearl, leather, silk, or wool. Of course, vegans today would make exactly this argument, but Khedrup would almost certainly have deemed vegans irrational. As Johnson puts it, “For Khedrup, a meat eater is only at fault and only accrues the karmic result of killing if he pays a butcher to slaughter a live animal so that he can eat its flesh for the purposes of his own enjoyment.” Notice that Khedrup’s concern is not just the act but the consumer’s state of mind. According to this argument, acting with craving and desire is the real problem for a Buddhist who eats meat, and if monastics take meat without any sense of desire for personal satisfaction, then they are absolved of any wrongdoing.

Turning to the Lankavatara Sutra’s arguments in support of vegetarianism, Khedrup suggested that this sutra was intended not for monks but rather for bodhisattvas who are “the nature of compassion” and have “completely pure bodies,” among other remarkable traits. Further, he declared that the Lankavatara’s Sutra’s prohibition of meat doesn’t even apply universally to bodhisattvas, who he insisted can eat meat without fault under certain circumstances, such as when eating meat will benefit others or cure an illness. Khedrup’s views thus stand in sharp contrast with those of Dolpopa and Ngorchen as he went to great lengths to identify cases in which Buddhists can and can’t eat meat, complicating any assumptions that meat is de facto unethical.

To be sure, one of the many virtues of The Faults of Meat is its broad scope, sampling writings from across centuries and distant regions to give us a sense of how Tibetan works on vegetarianism evolved. Barstow notes in his introduction that the scholastic, almost legalistic tone of earlier Tibetan works on this topic was later overtaken by a new style of writing in the eighteenth century. He attributes this shift to the Nyingma luminary Jigme Lingpa (1730–98), who expressed profound concern for animal welfare in his works, exchanging scholarly exegesis for poignant accounts of animals suffering. In one passage from his autobiography, Jigme Lingpa imagined the pain that animals must feel in the moments before they are butchered: “Having now become animals, your fathers, mothers, siblings, and friends from previous lives tremble with fear in the butcher’s sinful hands, tears streaming from their eyes, and panting for breath. In that state they wonder what to do. Alas, there is no refuge! There is nowhere to go!” This approach to vegetarian advocacy worked to persuade readers by appealing to their emotions rather than their knowledge of canonical Buddhist literature. The same strategy was taken up by influential Tibetan authors such as Shabkar Tsokdrük Rangdrol (1781–1851), whose songs against meat we find translated in Rachel Pang’s chapter. Shabkar described scenes of carnivorous monks, critiquing what he perceived to be their gluttonous behavior: “Amidst heaps of flesh and bones from beings who were once our mothers, / the monks, wielding knives, stuff their gaping mouths. / Alas! If Buddhists dare do this to beings, let’s not speak of non-Buddhists!”

The Faults of Meat: Tibetan Buddhist Writings on Vegetarianism edited by Geoffrey Barstow Wisdom Publications, 2019 352 pages; $34.95

Why has meat-eating been so commonplace in Tibet? Barstow offers several theories. It is often suggested that Tibet’s high altitude and harsh climate prevented the growth of vegetables, making meat unavoidable. Barstow challenges this narrative, noting that for many Tibetans, tsampa (roasted barley flour) was the main dietary staple, along with butter and other dairy products. Since we know there were vegetarians who lived long and healthy lives in Tibet, clearly it was possible to flourish without eating meat. But in a fascinating interview conducted by Sangseraima Ujeed, Arjia Rinpoche states that historically there were winter months when vegetables were unavailable; for many people, meat was the only option. Barstow emphasizes the flipside of this—namely, Rinpoche’s observation that for much of the year, Tibetans actually avoided slaughtering animals. Meat was thus a seasonal food and not the staple we imagine it to have been.

Barstow also addresses the common Tibetan belief that meat is essential to human health and that the body will become weak without it. The Tibetan medical tradition holds that meat prevents the “wind humor” (the other two humors being bile and phlegm) from becoming too strong, and thus frames eating meat as important for maintaining the body’s balance. Other factors too have played into meat’s popularity, such as the Tibetan cultural belief that it symbolizes wealth and status given its cost vis-à-vis plant-based cuisine, or the influence of what Barstow calls “heroic masculinity” in Tibetan popular culture—the idea that success is to be equated with physical strength and dominance, including dominance over, and the consumption of, animals.

Taken together, the contributions in this volume offer a wide look at the history of vegetarianism in Tibet—both its actual practice and the philosophical debates surrounding it. Barstow notes that while this volume focuses on extended discussions by Tibetan authors on meat, much of the Tibetan literature on this topic comes in the form of short but nevertheless illuminating passages. In other words, the translated works in this book reflect only a small fraction of what awaits us, and there is indeed much to be learned from Tibetan authors at a time when the sustainability and ethics of meat fall under ever greater scrutiny.

Rory Lindsay

Rory Lindsay

Rory Lindsay is an editor at 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha and a visiting scholar at UC Santa Barbara, where he lectures on Tibetan religions. He is also the Inner Asia area editor for the Religious Studies Review. He received his doctorate in Tibetan studies from Harvard University, and was Buddhadharma’s reviews editor from 2013–18. His new book, Agency and the Afterlife in Tibetan Buddhism, is forthcoming in 2021.